Book Review: The Burning of Bridget Cleary

Feb 25, 2007
I've finally started to get to work on my amazingly long to-read list, and yesterday morning I finished up The Burning of Bridget Cleary, an immensely complicated book by Angela Bourke about an immensely complicated situation in an immensely complicated time. (Please, don't let that sound as if it's hard to read: it's delightful, particularly if you like social history. But there are a lot of threads going through this narrative, and it hasn't got easy answers.)

Even the original story itself isn't all that straightforward, partially because of the layers of interpretation that get built into it. At the turn of the twentieth century, in Co. Tipperary in Ireland, a young woman named Bridget Cleary fell ill, possibly with pneumonia, and suffered for about a week and a half before her husband, who had become convinced that the dying woman in his house was not his wife but a fairy changeling left in her place, organized a ritual to drive the changeling out. Almost a dozen people were involved, including a fairy doctor from the region and friends and relations of the couple, and most of those people seem to have participated in questioning the woman (she was asked to swear her identity three times, on two separate occasions) and in holding her over the grate of the fire to drive out the fairy. The next day she seemed to be improving, got out of bed and dressed herself for the first time in over a week, but after an argument with her husband, with most of the previous days' participants still in the house, he became enraged, threw her down on the floor and threatened her with a burning stick from the fireplace, and finally threw paraffin oil on her and burned her alive. He buried the body in a bog nearby and told his friends that he would be waiting at the fairy hill with a black-handled knife to cut his wife's bonds and bring her back from the fairies. He served fifteen years with hard labor for murder, and most of the others served somewhat shorter sentences as accessories to.

Bourke takes this incident and ties it into the changing cultural landscape that was Ireland at the time -- one of a long series of Home Rule bills moving through Parliament; tensions between laborers, tenant farmers and landlords still high after the recent Land War; colonial and Victorian rationalist rhetoric in opposition to the local and Catholic ideals of much of the population; and, of course, the long, slow death of the pre-literate Irish oral culture that the fairy belief seems to have come from. (One problem, of course, with discussing the origin of these beliefs is the simultaneous Irish Renaissance, in which Yeats and Lady Gregory were making fairies popular again. The oral culture which does still exist has assimilated a lot of the later material, too, and it's almost impossible to tell what is genuinely ancient or pre-literate and what comes from a later, more romanticized origin.)

The first thing that struck me about this was its similarity to an exorcism case in Wisconsin we discussed in one of my anthro classes when it happened -- an 8-year-old autistic boy named Terrence Cottrell died during an attempt led by a local minister and some of the parishioners and his family to drive the demons out of him. And I have to admit, I found it easier to consider Bridget Cleary's death in a more sympathetic way, a function of my own biases. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that deaths caused by religious practices shouldn't be prosecuted as murder -- only that the fundamental difference in worldview between the religious practitioners and the law is important, and ought to be looked at.

The second thing this reminded me of was the fate of the attempted regicide Damiens in 1757. (No, wait, there's a connection, I swear.) Foucault gives a rather grotesque description of the punishment for regicide in the decades just before the French Revolution; I'll spare you the gory details (though they're in Discipline and Punish if you really want them), but basically, he was drawn and quartered, badly; pulled with pincers; hacked to pieces; and finally burned. It was an insane amount of overkill, even for people who wanted to make an example. And that was what they were doing, of course: no one had been drawn and quartered in decades, possibly centuries, because a more modern form of law-enforcement made it easier to punish more criminals more leniently than a few criminals more strictly, as used to be done. But the possibility that someone might try to kill the king was so frightening that the establishment reacted by reaching into their past for the most socially condemning punishment they could find, even if they didn't quite know how to go about it. Even in the days when people were drawn and quartered, Damiens' death would have been considered grotesque.

Bourke tells us that, although changeling belief has been recorded in Ireland since such records were kept, very few deaths were ever recorded as consequences of trying to get rid of changelings, and Bridget Cleary is the only adult ever recorded to have died from a fairy exorcism. Bourke doesn't make much of this point, but I think it's key to her entire argument. When the old order runs up against the new, something has to happen, and it's usually when worldviews are dying out that they become their most damaging. When a belief is common, it doesn't need to be reinforced in order to be effective: it stands on its own. When a belief is dying out (like a belief in changelings, or a belief in the moral necessity and superiority of a king) it needs that extra power of blood and death in order to really stick. To say that Bridget Cleary's death is a result of fairy belief isn't an insult to people who believe in fairies, it just shows how beliefs were changing at the time and to what degree they were coming under stress from Victorian rationalism.

For all her attempts to treat the fairy beliefs with respect, Bourke ultimately comes down against them, more often implying that no one actually believed that they were driving a changeling out of Bridget Cleary's place. But this stance seems to me to be even more disrespectful: while I can understand (if not condone) torturing a changeling to force it to reveal itself, I have a harder time with the idea that nearly a dozen people tortured a woman in order to impress social conformity upon her.

And now this post is getting ridiculously long, so it will conclude (with more of the meat of the point I wanted to make) tomorrow.


Ella said...

You write very well.

Jenavira said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?

Anonymous said...
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